Non Profit Quarterly - July 2019

... Process above People

DuVernay’s script and Farmiga’s performance as Lederer capture incisively the extent to which white women in power at once prioritize and hide behind process. There are a number of times in the film where Farmiga’s Lederer demonstrates that she knows she is presenting coerced confessions and hopelessly inadequate evidence to the jury, but she carries on. The show must go on, no matter the lives being destroyed. She can disassociate from those lives and focus on her expertise, the momentum, the need to win. And when she is asked offline by an attorney for one of the accused boys to at least “play fair” —it is a game, after all—she then hides behind cynical “truths” about the process, saying in essence that this case isn’t about justice but about politics.

In white-led organizations, process is very often put above people. And very often those processes—strategy formation, budgeting, performance management, grantmaking, you name it—are not processes that allow for multiple truths or take power dynamics and existing inequities into account. As white women leaders, we take comfort in the cover these processes afford us. “This is best practice.” “This is how this is done.” “This is the political reality.”

Senator Susan Collins of Maine comes to mind. Like Lederer, Collins had all the evidence a reasonable person would need that Brett Kavanaugh not only sexually assaulted Christine Blasey-Ford but was keen to see abortion rights undermined. As Alexis Grenell wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year, “Senator Collins subjected us to a slow funeral dirge about due process and some other nonsense I couldn’t even hear through my rage headache as she announced on Friday she would vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh.” Collins, like Lederer, allowed injustice to proceed under the guise of due process. Instead, as white women leaders, we need to use our power to interrupt, or redesign, or heaven forbid abandon processes when we learn that they are or will cause harm.

Denial of Trauma

As white women leaders, we also don’t engage fully with the trauma that the systems we design and uphold are causing others, especially people of color. Erlanger A. Turner, PhD, and Jasmine Richardson, writing in Psychology Benefits Society (a blog of the American Psychological Association), explain: “In an attempt to capture how racism and discrimination negatively impacts the physical and mental health of people of color, many scholars have coined the term ‘racial trauma’ or race-based traumatic stress. Racial trauma may result from racial harassment, witnessing racial violence, or experiencing institutional racism (Bryant-Davis, & Ocampo, 2006; Comas-Díaz, 2016).”

We need to recognize that the organizational systems of nonprofits and philanthropies are often part of the institutionalized racism that people of color encounter every day. Our practices are not merely “management choices”; they have very real mental health consequences. I didn’t learn this until my mid-40s, well into a career of nonprofit leadership. And, again, I learned it from courageous people of color with whom I worked, people who were suffering in organizational systems that I had enacted or upheld and took the risk to tell me so. I suspect I am not alone among white women leaders in this regard. ...
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